South Africa. Tony Carnie and Jeff Wicks reports that a second major blaze in less than two months lit up the sky above the south Durban residential area on Monday night (2007/11/19) when a storage tank with more than seven million litres of petrol caught fire at the Engen refinery in Tara Road, apparently after it was struck by lightning.
There were no immediate reports of death or injury, but the blaze caused fear and panic in several neighbouring residential areas following a similar tank fire at the Island View petro-chemical and bulk liquids storage facility in Durban Harbour on September 18.
Engen refinery spokesperson Willem Oosthuizen told The Mercury that the tank contained 7.5 million litres of refined petrol and that firemen were battling to attack the blaze because of strong winds.
Although Engen had its own firefighting crews specifically trained to deal with fuel tank fires, the eThekwini Metro Fire Department had been called in, along with city disaster management crews.
The Engen refinery is the oldest refinery in Durban and is closely surrounded by houses in the suburbs of Wentworth, Austerville, Merebank and the rest of the Bluff residential area. The refinery dates back to the early 1950s. Originally known as the Standard Vacuum oil refinery, and later the Mobil and now the Engen refinery, it processes more than 125 000 barrels of crude oil a day.
Its existence in the heart of a densely populated residential area has been a source of controversy among residents for more than five decades, largely because of air pollution, Health and Safety issues.
Oosthuizen said the most likely explanation was a lightning strike.
“At this stage it does not look like evacuation of residents is necessary. The best thing is to stay indoors and keep the windows closed,” he said, noting that disaster management crews were driving through residential areas giving this advice via loudhailers.
Oosthuizen said the tank where the fire broke out did not have a solid top but a “floating roof” which rose or fell as it is emptied or filled.
‘We saw massive flames filling the sky’
It appeared that the floating roof and seals had collapsed into the tank soon after the fire had begun, which meant that it was “a bit like fighting a fire burning in a cup”.
In an effort to prevent the fire spreading, adjacent tanks were being doused to keep them cool.
Bluff resident Lyle Niemack said he was shocked when he saw the flames.
“My son came running to me and told me there was a fire at the refinery. We all rushed out and we saw massive flames filling the sky,” he said.
“Initially we left our house, but then we heard on the radio that we should stay inside.”
“All we heard was a siren.”
Merebank resident Vicky Govender said: “I heard three short bursts of a siren coming from the refinery. When I walked out of my house I saw the huge fireballs soaring into the air.
“The streets are full of people all in their pyjamas, watching the blaze. Lots of them are panicking and getting in their cars to leave.”
Govender slammed Engen, saying it had no consideration for those who lived nearby.
Ray Damon, an Engen Relationship Manager, allayed fears that anyone had been injured.
“I am in the forward control room now and we had not received any reports of injuries at that stage.The fire is under control and we don’t think it’s going to spread. Firefighters are trying to increase the supply of foam to the fire.”
City Manager Mike Sutcliffe said people had no reason to panic.
“Every time we have a major disaster like tonight’s fire we urge people to remain calm and stay in their homes until they are instructed to evacuate. It is far safer for residents to stay inside than to rush out,” he said.
“We as the city are the statuary body and we will issue the instruction to evacuate either over the radio or with loudhailers moving through neighbourhoods. The worst situation we can have is people gathering at the gates of Engen trying to see what is happening. All they do is block the thoroughfare of emergency services and police.”
Desmond D’Sa, the chairperson of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, said the events reinforced the community perception that the city lacked an effective emergency evacuation plan.
“There are thousands of people on the streets and most don’t know what to do. Some people have taken their families out of the area and won’t return until the fire is out. Very few people living next to the refinery are going to get any sleep while the fire is burning, and they will keep wondering about what to do the next time there is a fire.”
This article was originally published on page 1 of The Mercury on November 20, 2007